Twenty Years of the War on Terror

Sudip Bhattacharya

WITH THE WAR on Terror in its twentieth year, thrust back into the public discourse with the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Linda Sarsour, prominent Palestinian American activist and thinker, one of the national co-founders of the Women’s March (the largest single day protest in U.S. history), expressed what has been the core experience over the last two decades, “Unfortunately, we’ve been sitting around for twenty years, watching people who look like us, who pray like us, die.”

As Sarsour noted, the past two decades have been devastating for people within the U.S. but especially for those living abroad, especially those in the Central Asian and Middle East region. From the drone strikes of weddings to now, leaving a political vacuum for groups like the Taliban to re-emerge and reconquer, U.S. involvement, justified by the War On Terror, has left countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, utterly “decimated,” Sarsour said.

“We’ve been using that facade of the War On Terror to strip Americans of civil liberies, restricting due process, the usage of secret surveillance, the unwarranted surveillance of Muslim communities and political activists,” Sarsour listed, “These were all justified and passed and implemented under the guise of the War On Terror.”

To this day, Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, and South Asians and anyone perceived to be Muslim (a.k.a. Brown, maybe with an accent) are still dealing with the ramifications of the War on Terror, with politicians like Trump having pushed through the Muslim Ban, which prevented immigrants from mainly Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

The War On Terror, broadly, has sowed fear, paranoia, frustration as well as helping develop a constituency soaked in right-wing populist rage on the domestic front, and of course, allowing for the U.S. and its allies to “consolidate” more power for themselves on the world stage, according to Moustafa Bayoumi, professor of English at Brooklyn College and who has written extensively on the experiences of Muslims and Arab Americans over the past twenty years, as exemplified in his recent work, This Muslim American Life.

As soon as the towers collapsed, we were under siege, by war, by anti-Muslim propaganda, by average people emboldened by anti-Muslim rhetoric, seeking to hurt us, to torment us for years to come, even to this day.

“We were denied our moment of grief because we had to protect ourselves,” Bayoumi said, in reference to the anti-Muslim backlash and a politics based on “vengeance” that followed the 9/11 attacks, which would persist through Democrat and Republican adminstrations.

Even with the pullout of troops from Afghanistan, the War on Terror continues in the form of drones, in the form of U.S. hegemony, in the form of the people I love, peering through their windows at night, apprehensive that someone is still out there, ready to throw another rock through the glass, ready to throw trash, reminding us that at any moment, we are vulnerable to attack.


“I do remember my dad cautioning us to be more careful about how we present ourselves to the outside world, more so in a paranoid way,” Allena Karim, a research analyst for labor campaigns and someone I’ve met through the organizing circles we’re in, explained to me.

Fatima, who is also a friend and fellow organizer and an educator, remembered how some of her cousins had random people trying to rip their hijabs off as they would simply walk by.

“We knew we had to start preparing for the backlash,” she explained, “It was a very confusing and difficult time.”

Hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs, and anyone perceived to be “Muslim” (a.k.a. brown) would increase following the attacks. Sikh Americans were also targeted by people made to believe that anyone wearing a turban was synonymous with being a “terrorist” or so-called Muslim extremist. My own family, which is mainly Hindu, faced against people in the neighborhood throwing bricks, hurling insults whenever we would walk by, and in some instances, would try and damage our homes in the dead of night, stealing lights from our lawns. In one example, one of our white neighbors yelled at my dad while he was simply getting the mail, claiming we were the source of all the world’s ills. My dad yelled back and although the communities we were in were racially/ethnically diverse, most people retreated into their homes. It became evident that one loud racist was all it took, at times, to cause anxiety and stress for the broader community.

“Suddenly, there was a way in which we became a local and national threat rather than an international one,” Bayoumi expressed.

Following the attacks, the surveillance capacity of law enforcement was enhanced, and policies were taken, such as the registering of mainly Muslim men immigrants who were on a work VISA in New York City.

“There was a panic among the people when they were asked to go through that process,” Sangay Mishra, professor of political science at Drew University and author of Desis Divided explained, “When the process was completed, some 13,000-14,000 were put under deportation proceedings.” To be clear, none of the men who were deported had anything to do with terrorism and were now being sent away due to immigration issues, such as overstaying a VISA. Regardless, the surveillance state continued to target Muslims, with the FBI placing informants in mosques, and monitoring even Muslim American student groups at college campuses on the Northeast, which has been highlighted by the work of groups like the ACLU.

The specter of now, the “internal threat” of Islamic radicals helped bloat police budgets and expanded the authority of law enforcement to spy, detain, and disappear individuals.

This also led to a “chilling effect” on particular communities, Sarsour explained. Many of us, especially those who are Muslim, became increasingly reluctant in speaking on politics in public spaces, whether it’s at cafes, hookah loungers, or at the mosques. Topics that remained critical, such as the Palestinian right to self-determination were oftentimes buried under less “controversial” topics, such as discussing love and relationships.

According to Sarsour, this “chilling effect” has remained with us, compelling our communities to avoid taking part in explicit forms of politics, such as protests, or avoiding discussing particular topics in public spaces, such as the role that U.S. imperialism has played in regions like the Middle East and Central Asia.

After all, much of the policies that emerged after 9/11 have stuck with us, thereby serving as a reminder of just how vulnerable our communities are to the whims of those in power, from law enforcement to those participating in our surveillance as an act of “patriotism.” Donald Trump himself is a glaring example of just how anti-Muslim politics and policies can be cobbled together and enacted, such as the Muslim Ban. Knowing this, why would any of us feel comfortable enough to speak up on issues of importance?

“We think we moved on but we haven’t,” Sarsour expressed.

Hence, the fear and paranoia many of us are still experiencing is a function of real, material conditions created by policies and institutions. One of the lasting effects of the War on Terror has been our continued vulnerability to particular policies and constituencies that have been shaped by narratives in the media as well as particular political actors as well.

As recently as 2017, a majority of Muslim Americans expressed worry and an overwhelming concern with discrimination.

So long as surveillance policies and other policies pertaining to how marginalized groups are treated, so long as law enforcement retains the level of power and influence it currently has in our society, so long as right-wing populism and liberal complicity (i.e. President Barack Obama’s implicit pardoning of torturers and his rhetoric reinforcing American Exceptionalism) are not confronted effectively, many will continue to feel alienated, worried, and anxious.

Indeed, hate crimes against Sikhs and Muslims have persisted, thanks in part to Trump’s term in office and his wielding of stereotypes to benefit him electorally.

This trajectory will not change this dynamic unless we take it upon ourselves to build the coalitions we need with other oppressed groups to confront such threats against ourselves and against others.


Of course, one of the most obvious ways in which the War on Terror lives on is in the ability of the U.S. to still be the world’s sole superpower. Yes, China is now expanding its strength but much of its power is still restricted to Asia, and although China is striving to increase its influence across Africa and Latin America, it lags far behind the U.S. in terms of military might, as exemplified by the U.S. having over 800 military bases across the globe, which is almost 799 more than China, our supposed competitor.

Since World War II, the U.S. has been an imperial force at the international level, having emerged from the war relatively unscathed in terms of infrastructure while Europe was buried under rubble. Strategically, major European powers handed over the proverbial baton to the U.S., acknowledging they no longer could retain their own imperial might, but recognized that it was the U.S. that could still shape a global order that could benefit their mutual interests, which included preventing newly independent countries across Asia and Africa from developing political power.

Daniel Bessner is a associate professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual and expressed how the War on Terror exemplified continuities and differences that the Left has to contend with.

Since the end of WWII, according to Bessner, the U.S. “pursued a strategy of armed hegemony,” which included a robust nuclear armament program as well as propping up right-wing authoritarians across the world, from regimes in Latin America to regimes in places like South Vietnam and apartheid South Africa.

However, the U.S. was somewhat contained by its rival, the Soviet Union, which did provide a bulwark against the most extreme tendencies of the U.S. imperial project. That, of course, changed when the U.S.S.R. collapsed by the 1990s, leaving the U.S., nearly overnight, as the world’s sole superpower.

When the attacks on 9/11 occurred, the U.S. had the moral justification to consolidate more power internationally and more influence.

“The fight against ‘Jihadism’ seems to mirror in a meaningful way the manichean project of the Cold War,” Bessner said, “9/11 allowed the U.S. to pretend it’s facing an existential threat, thus ramping up its military and security apparatus.”

Just as the surveillance state expanded domestically, with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, a similar trajectory occurred on the world stage, with the U.S. developing a network of private security firms (i.e. Blackwater), defense contractors, a larger budget for the pentagon, and of course, such policies like the AUMF, which provided carte-blanche for the U.S. military to invade countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, and to provide military “assistance” against regimes in Libya and Syria.

Despite the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan, such networks of vested interests remain, which also include Congresspeople who depend on defense contractors in their districts to provide some form of employment for constituents.

“The War on Terror is a justification to bloat the budget of the military industrial complex, the budget of the Pentagon,” Sarsour expressed.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on fighting the so-called War on Terror. Still, the U.S. military is asking for a 10 percent increase in its budget for 2022 from Congress, which would be around $715 billion.

But a possibly more glaring impact of the War on Terror on the world, besides the increased funding for military and private contractors, has been how the past two decades has changed the ways in which the war itself has been waged by the U.S.

At the beginning of the War on Terror, the U.S. indeed had boots on the ground, of course in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention troops and technicians of war spread out all over the globe on military installations, hidden or otherwise. That said, the number of Americans who have become incorporated into this war as its frontline troops reflects an insignificant percentage of the overall population. Right now, the percentage hovers under 10 percent.

Furthermore, as much as the U.S. had relied on invasions earlier in its efforts, the U.S. has continued to find ways to conduct its war with the least amount of people on the ground. This is evident even in places like Iraq where there are still “advisors” but most of our troops are no longer there. The same could possibly happen in Afghanistan, although the Taliban would probably be against such an idea.

Regardless, the war effort includes drones, which are oftentimes controlled by someone far, far away from the scene of the “action,” as far as the U.S. Indeed, following the pullout of U.S. troops, the U.S. military still proceeded to use its drones for an airstrike in Afghanistan, which ended up killing innocent Afghans.

According to Bessner, the war on terror will persist (also, as Bessner points out, Biden confirms this in his latest speech on Afghanistan) in the form of fewer troops, but with drone strikes, special forces, and private contractors which are often, ex-military, trained by the military but now operating with much less oversight. The private contractor, Blackwater, is a disturbing example of how our war on terror will carry on, with the few troops that are on the ground being mainly what are essentially “mercenaries,” perceiving Iraqi and Afghan and brown life as being in their way of a mission, such as crushing innocent civilians beneath their massive humvees.

Essentially, the war effort, the terrorizing that we’ve done in the world, has been structured in such a way that the majority of the public has less reason to care, unless it is something as explicit and glaring as the invasion and pullout of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. But such acts are themselves, an anomaly in terms of how the U.S. has conducted its “interventions,” which have included again, special forces, private contractors, an all-volunteer military, and drones and other types of weaponry that can be used from afar, not to mention the funding of “allies” in particular regions, which have usually been anti-communist Islamists and other guerilla forces that contribute to the chaos on the ground, or we choose to support regimes, like General Sisi in Egypt, that are some of the most brutal and repressive in the world.

“I think we live in an age that has the institutions and the rhetoric and discourse of mass politics but in actuality, the American state has situated itself in a way that mass politics doesn’t affect it,” Bessner stated, “What has effectively happened is that American elites in foreign policy and in economic policy have isolated themselves from democratic accountability. Think of the fed. Think of all these foreign policy institutions that Congress does not have to legitimize who is on them.”

The war is structured so most people do not have to pay attention to how it’s waged, to the drone strikes that murder innocents, that go against international law, or to the ways in which private contractors roam the streets of Iraq, targetting people someone in charge has deemed a “problem.” Subsequently, decisions about the war on terror have been made among a handful of neoconservatives, liberal “interventionists,” and those taken as “respectable” in the eyes of the military and its main backers. Such decisions are relegated to meetings between officials, defense contractors, and think tanks. As Bessner alluded to, this network of foreign policy “experts” also included the most loathsome people, such as Henry Kissinger (Hillary Clinton expressed pride in a man who worked with Richard Nixon in supporting mass death and bombings across Asia and military regimes in Latin America) and Elliot Abrams, who was given renewed life to provide foreign policy “advice” during the Trump administration, who has been condemned for his role in supporting genocidal policies across Central America in the 1980s, a time when anti-communism took precedence over basic humanity of the people affected by our cravenness.

Thus, this War on Terror will continue, through Democrat and Republican administrations, so long as it serves U.S. imperial interests and those invested in its project, so long as its day-to-day operations operate away from public input and influence.


“Betaa,” my dad’s voice boomed (like most Bengalis, our whispering can still bring people back to life) through my bedroom door, “Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.”

“Alright, alright,” I responded, rubbing my eyes, and staggering toward the door, the moonlight projecting silver stripes across my face.

My dad was wearing his lounger and immediately after I opened the door, he insisted I follow him to our guest room which faced the street. I rolled my eyes but trailed after, and stood next to him, as we gazed across the asphalt, toward the trees that separated our street from the roads ahead.

It was several years after 9-11 and I was on my way toward moving to D.C., to begin the next phase of my career, but in the meantime, I tried to spend as much time as I could with my parents, staying at home, eating with them, talking with them, or just being in the same room. I knew I would miss them, but there were also days when I would become frustrated, including with my dad’s insistence on some nights that he heard something “out there”. This was one of those nights.

“Baba,” I insisted, “There is nothing out there.”

Still staring through the window, he told me to hush and keep looking.

“You’re too impatient,” he said, “You don’t understand. Keep looking. Keep looking.”

I furrowed my brow at him, but I did as told, staring out the window, at an empty road. The street we lived on was all South Asian American and over the years, there had been instances of harassment and targeting. But after a while, it did dissipate, given our own attempts at organizing the neighborhood against such acts, and letting law enforcement (I know, the irony) they needed to keep an eye out for us (this is before I had a broader critique although my family and I feared the police as well…the contradictions in our lives that serve to complicated and illuminate).

Sometimes, my parents would insist that I try and not go out too late. To this day, they warn me about certain people doing harm to me. They warn about how at any time, I could be pulled over, profiled, disappeared.

“When did you come home last night?” my mom asked one morning as I stumbled into the kitchen, my eyes red.

I told her I was with my friends, and all we did was drive around the area. But she turned the stove on, boiling water for tea, and repeated to me again about everything that could happen, and at that point, I’d eat my cereal, make some coffee, and try not to flee the room.

“Keep looking,” my dad repeated, his voice rising, which I told him would wake up Ma. “Just keep looking. Are you looking?”

I had the urge to flee, to go outside and scream at the people who were allegedly hiding in the bushes, to show my dad there was nothing there. To end this and return to my room, listening to music, watching videos on YouTube half-way through. Ensconced in my own world.

“I don’t think there’s enough recognition of the psychic toll that this generation has taken on,” Bayoumi said, referring to those of us who have grown up in the shadow of war and surveillance and perpetual disaster that has become normalized by now.

The irony of the experiences we’ve had due to the War on Terror has indeed impacted us in extremely negative ways but has also revealed certain truths to more of us who may have been less likely to believe in such truths prior to the attacks. Because of the shared experiences many of us have had due to the policing, the harassment, the surveillance, many of us now have a clearer understanding of how oppressive, exploitative, and brutal living in the U.S. can be. It has therefore compelled many, especially those of us who grew up in this era, to start to see more clearly that our fates are intertwined (with identities such as South Asian becoming more prominent) with others who have also been facing the forces of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy.

Increasingly, such experiences have also shifted our communities to the Left. As Marxists, of course, none of us should treat this shift as evidence that someday, people will become socialists (as if it’s a natural process of time) and there still needs to be a robust socialist movement that can lead and push people further along in their political evolution, but this shift too cannot be underestimated. South Asians, including Indian Americans, as Mishra expressed, have become now a consistent bloc against the GOP. Muslim Americans generally have also supported candidates like Bernie Sanders, who are considered Left in our mainstream politics.

As mentioned, this suggests there is opportunity for socialists and communists in our communities to organize around issues like healthcare, housing, policing, among other interests. But that organizing still needs to occur and take advantage of this “shift” away from the GOP and to provide a bulwark against conservatives in our communities who will not give up on cleaving away support for progressive causes by suggesting that South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists can indeed avoid the worst elements of the War on Terror by aligning themselves with a rhetoric around business (i.e. brown people entrepreneurs as a vanguard of success for the rest of us) or start to echo a politics of division and accommodation to capital and white supremacy, which could include steering away from socialists, from communists, from organizing on labor, from siding with movements like BLM, and instead, siding with more conservative groups, with anti-Muslim interests, or extolling American Exceptionalism and continuing to live an extremely middle-class existence (as much as one can in late-stage capitalism).

All this to say the War on Terror has provided us with opportunity to organize, but as Sarsour hinted at earlier, this includes the need for campaigns to also build up the confidence among sections of our communities, those who have been targeted and repressed (which includes the undocumented), who have been made to feel (understandably so) that the best they could hope for is to scrape by a living. We need to build campaigns that build up peoples’ confidence in their ability to challenge capitalism, to challenge white supremacy and patriarchy. There are groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) that are doing this type of work and they should be supported and learned from.

Yet, if we are to resist the War on Terror effectively, our fight must be a global one. If we as South Asians and Arab Americans restrict ourselves to the “domestic” front, we end up ignoring how intertwined our fates are with black and brown people all over the world, who are facing U.S. imperial might and coercion, and thus, allow for the killing, the exploitation, the death and destruction to spill into the lives of millions and millions of people abroad.

As demonstrated by the War on Terror, as the U.S. conducted its invasions, its drone strikes, its surveillance apparatus developed to monitor the “internal threat” that Muslim Americans and Left political activists supposedly posed. Similar to dynamics in the Cold War, an American Communist or in this case, an American Muslim, was seen as an agent of global communism or global “Islamist” movements.

Also, as Sarsour explained, a society in which U.S. imperial might is expressed is a society that will not view such things as universal healthcare as necessary, or as a right people deserve. A society shaped by dominating others in the way that we do is one that will bastardize such policies and produce obstacles in achieving truly universalist and egalitarian politics, whether it’s in the constituencies that such imperial policies produce (right-wing populists who would view healthcare as something that must be restricted from black and brown people and immigrants) or in policy discourses that again, as Bessner describes, elevate particular pro-imperialist interests (whether liberal or conservative) which limit what is considered “realistic” or “necessary.” After all, U.S. imperial policy has also sustained constituencies that may not be rabid in their right-wing beliefs, but nonetheless, have sustained industries that have benefited from our escapades overseas and our shaping of global market forces, and this includes those who work in defense, including those in STEM. Therefore, the continuation of U.S. might is taken for granted, while policies that are egalitarian and world building are deemed “fantastical” by the media and by policymakers in their attempts to shape discourse. Essentially, a society that shovels money and resources for the sake of imperialism is a society that cannot develop egalitarian tendencies even domestically.

“We have to make sure our progressive movements are intersectional and see ourselves as part of a larger global struggle for justice,” Sarsour concluded.

Ending the War on Terror means ending the U.S. empire. It means a Left, socialists, communists, progressives, left-liberals who are willing to treat the struggle as international. Of course, the moral case should be clear for this: how can we call ourselves liberatory if we find ways to end surveillance here (if that’s even possible) or pull back our troops without addressing the utter devastation we’ve wrought on the globe, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but needless to say, in countries like Venezuela and Cuba among others. How can we claim to be a Left if we refuse to take responsibility for what our country has done through sanctions, war, and the support of right wing movements?

This is a critical lesson that we all should take from the past twenty years, that the Left inside the U.S. must be envisioning a new world for all. Both out of a moral necessity and a material one.

“There has to be a rethinking of what global security and global cooperation means,” Bayoumi exclaimed, “A world that has security and cooperation is better than a world of domination and insecurity and that’s the world we have now under America.”

Biden is proving to be, as Bayoumi explained, “selective” in his fight for “human rights” so long as such rights do not conflict with our interests and influence globally. This was the same under President Obama, who promoted himself as less hawkish than his Democrat party rivals, and yet, continued U.S. domination overseas.

Bayoumi described Obama’s terms as an “empire with a kinder face” but an empire regardless.

But the question emerges, on how do we accomplish this task of changing U.S. policy on the War on Terror internationally when the war is being waged away from most peoples’ immediate lives. We have many of us in our communities who have fled countries allied to the U.S., countries in which repression has been guided and supported by the U.S., but that doesn’t change the fact that our ability currently to effect change exists.

Protests matter but mainly in terms of building support and developing constituencies that are primed to care about what happens “over there”. But protests alone are not the complete answer in systemic change, especially in terms of foreign policy.

“We don’t know the pressure points,” Bessner explained, “We have to know the pressure points first. We have to do a power mapping.”

Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America are developing more focus among its members on the international scene and thus, developing an analysis that we need. But more must be done. More groups on the Left have to coordinate and learn about how exactly, as Bessner describes, the international security state relates to the domestic one and what types of leverage could we have and muster.

If this isn’t pursued, the War on Terror will continue as indicated by its most fervent backers, and the war will persist in draining us within the U.S. as well.

The siege will continue to seep into all of our lives, leaving us exhausted, confused, and weary, left staring outside, our muscles tensed.

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *